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Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen

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One Beijing always launches a crackdown on crime just before the annual convention of the national Communist Party.

Before my buddies and I can get wind of it, we are busted at Chou-Chou’s. Chou-Chou is the son of two diplomats who work in Sydney; their house has become our hangout. We are thrown in jail. Eight of us. I am booked on charges of having a corrupt lifestyle and hooliganism, and sentenced to three months of rehabilitation through labor. There is no trial.

Each morning we learn revolutionary songs while marching in the jail’s courtyard. During the day we make matchboxes. We have to work ten or twelve hours a day. But that’s better than attending political study sessions: at least we don’t have to confess or lie.

There is a guard named Erniu. She is in her late forties or early fifties, a short-tempered spinster who has probably just reached menopause. Her job is to conduct “thought reform” on female inmates. Liu Hulan will be our role model. Liu Hulan was beheaded during the Civil War because she refused to disclose Communist Party secrets.

“Look at Liu Hulan, she was so young, yet she had the courage to die for her beliefs. What revolutionary consciousness she has at only fifteen! Don’t you feel ashamed of yourselves? Look at yourselves, a bunch of female hooligans, a pack of scumbags! Our party gives you enough to eat and keep you warm, but you still can’t keep your pants on!”

Erniu’s words don’t bother me. Mama says that my skin is thicker than the city wall.

Erniu wants us to write reports about one another’s behavior. Those who want to buy her favor report every small thing to her.

“I suppose you all know why you’re here behind bars, right?” She looks at us seated in a circle around her.

“Yes,” we all answer at the top of our lungs.

“That’s good.” She walks among us, points at one of us, Ding Ding, and asks, “Tell me, why are you here?”

Ding Ding recites, “I’m here to absolve myself of and atone for my past misbehavior, get rid of my dirty and unhealthy thoughts, and become a new woman for the new age.”

Erniu nods with satisfaction and then raises her voice, saying, “You’re here because you are wanton. Time spent here doing labor should clear your minds of filth. Yet I hear that one of you just cannot get rid of her wanton thoughts. I am told she likes to play with herself almost every night. She even uses corncobs.” Erniu is staring at the country girl, Chunni. Chunni is in jail because she was caught fucking the master of the house where she worked as a nanny. His wife reported them to the police. The man was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Chunni doesn’t wash, and she smells. Her feet smell like soy sauce. She steals little things like hairpins or key chains from others. Once she even used her cellmate’s toothbrush to brush her teeth.

Chunni lowers her head, her whole body trembling. I see bean-size drops of water on the floor. It’s a hot day. I can’t tell whether they’re tears or sweat. All of us have this naive look in our eyes, as if none of us had ever played with herself.

“Shall we punish her?” Erniu asks.

“Yes,” we yell.

“Suggestions are welcome.” Erniu sits back and sips tea from her old enamel mug. There’s an illustration of a scene from an erotic novel, A Dream of Red Mansions, on the side of the mug.

Inmates raise their hands.

“Since she has such excessive energy, she should have a higher matchbox quota.”

“She should carry thermoses of hot water for the guards.”

“She should sweep the floors as well as making matchboxes.”

I keep silent. I can’t help Chunni, nor do I want to. She’s doomed. But I can’t throw stones at someone who’s drowning in a well. I don’t want my conscience to be eaten by dogs.

Chunni is transferred; nothing more is heard of her. She isn’t the only one Erniu picks on. Erniu always looks for targets on whom to vent her sexual frustration. She makes sure that our hair is short enough and that we wear plain uniforms all the time.

New girls are also unlucky. The day Xiu Xiu arrives, Erniu slaps her face at lunchtime in front of everyone and snarls, “Do you know where you are, you whore? How dare you wear lipstick? Do you intend to poison more revolutionary comrades even in jail? You cheap, evil slut!”

Xiu Xiu blushes, bites her lower lip, opens her mouth, and musters, “The color of my lips is natural. I’ve never used lipstick.”

Erniu slaps the girl’s face again, on the same side. Xiu Xiu’s cheek turns puffy, like a red bean pancake.

“Talking back to me, are you? Just ask everyone here, who dares do this to me?” Erniu turns to the rest of us. “There is no way out unless you wash off your old faces and become new women.”

Erniu is killing chickens to intimidate monkeys. We listen with heads lowered and finish our lunch quickly and in silence.

The red-lipped girl is sent to a solitary cell, forced to work sixteen hours a day, and not allowed to go out to exercise.

By keeping my distance, I avoid trouble. I am released from jail on my twenty-fourth birthday. Standing outside in the noonday sun, I stare at my dwarfed shadow as if it were a distant relative. My eyes hurt from the dizzying sunlight that I had forgotten while locked up in a small cell.

My parents don’t come to pick me up. They have never visited me during my incarceration, for I have dishonored our ancestors.

The bus ride home takes an entire day. I have nothing to eat. I have no money. My one possession is a small, worn military bag stuffed with underwear. I am not sure if I can call my parents’ place home. They will not welcome me there, but it is the only place I can go. I am dying to have a real meal and wash myself. In the last ninety days I have taken only one shower, with forty-nine other women, all of us fighting for three showerheads. I stink to myself.

On the bus, a middle-aged woman and a clean-cut, pale man argue endlessly. The woman fiercely accuses the man of bothering her by constantly touching her rear end. She shouts at him, “What do you think you’re doing, you little son of a whore? Don’t even think about it. Save your stinking hands for your mother.”

The man blushes and retorts, “Can’t you see how crowded this bus is? Let me tell you, you fat old smelly cunt, I wouldn’t give a shit if you dropped dead.” Their feuding breaks up the trip’s monotony. No one stops them.

Walking from the bus stop near my parents’ home, I am greeted by no neighbors, except retarded Little Yue. She eagerly calls my name, her mouth drooling. Everyone else acts as if I didn’t exist. I knock, and Papa opens the door and says, “Lili, here you are.” He doesn’t say anything more because my mother is staring at him, silently restraining him. Papa prepares an unusually delicious dinner later, but I eat it in silence. My parents watch TV in their bedroom.

In ancient China a husband was free to abandon his wife on their wedding night if he found out she wasn’t a virgin. Widows were glorified for committing suicide to follow their dead husbands. There were three obediences and four virtues that women had to practice. I don’t remember what the four virtues were, but the three obediences stated that before marriage the woman was to obey her father; after marriage she was to obey her husband; and finally, after the death of her husband, she was to obey her son.

The Communist Party is very proud of its role in lib- erating Chinese women from such ancient customs. But a woman’s private life is still not her own. Those who lose their virginity before marriage are still spat upon. The only difference between feudal times and our own is that back then “bad women” were seen as amoral fox spirits, whereas now they are labeled corrupt bourgeois.

My mother likes to lecture me: “Ren huo lian, shu huo pi—‘A man lives for his face, and a tree lives for its bark.’ The most important thing for a girl is her reputation.”

I am not a virgin. No decent family will accept me as a daughter-in-law. Nor does the Communist Party pin its hopes for the next generation of revolutionaries on women like me. With no foothold in the old world and none in the new, I am an object of contempt.

My father collects job postings and piles them neatly on my desk.

“Lili, if you have time, take a look at those job announcements,” he says, almost begging.

His efforts are useless. It’s simple: the government assigns all the jobs, and if one doesn’t have the right connections, it is almost impossible to get a job. How can my father be so naive about the system after living under the red flag for thirty years? The Red Guard must have beaten his senses as well as his head.

The job postings solicit girls who are between eighteen and twenty-eight and have “acceptable facial features” and well-proportioned legs. A bribe is expected, and that isn’t all. I bet old Mao would have been surprised by the sexual appetites of his revolutionary disciples; or maybe he wouldn’t. My friend Yuan says Mao was hungry himself.

Before the Cultural Revolution, people feared having overseas relatives; now everyone wants to have them, along with one or two American- or Japanese-made products at home.

Excerpted from LILI © Copyright 2001by Annie Wang. Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.

Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen
by by Annie Wang

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375420851
  • ISBN-13: 9780375420856